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Review: Labor Day

February 10, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Labor Day PosterAmong my highlights of last year’s TIFF was attending a screening of Labor Day on the final Saturday of the festival.  Director Jason Reitman made a surprise appearance for the final showing of his latest at the Ryerson Theatre, dedicating the screening to late film critic Roger Ebert and sound pioneer Ray Dolby, and sticking around for an awesome Q&A.

This surely added to my appreciation of the film, which just opened in theatres on January 31st.  Although receiving surprisingly mixed reviews, I quite liked Labor Day.  This is a touching and beautifully acted romance, as well as a tender coming of age story, that would be perfect for Valentines Day.

When the depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) finally leaves the house to go shopping with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), they are confronted by the injured Frank (Josh Brolin), who convinces them to take him back to their home.

Frank is an escaped convict just trying to stay under the radar of the police, but things take an unexpected turn when Adele starts to fall in love with him, and the two form a deep bond over the final weekend of summer vacation in the 1980s.  But the police are after him for reasons that are slowly revealed through flashbacks, and their relationship can only last so long before fate inevitably intervenes.

Although some have found this premise hard to believe, for me Labor Day comes alive thanks to the excellent acting.  Kate Winslet delivers another in a long line of brilliant performances, masterfully portraying the depression and anxiety of her character.  Josh Brolin does excellent work that draws us in throughout every scene, including the already infamous sequence where he seductively bakes a peach pie.  The young Gattlin Griffin holds his own alongside these two veteran actors, with the sort of quietly nuanced performance that is rarely seen from child actors.  Tobey Maguire plays his character as an adult, bookending the film with narration that recalls his work in The Great Gatsby.

I’ve been a big fan of director Jason Reitman since the beginning, and it’s fascinating to note just how tonally different Labor Day is from his four previous triumphs, feeling quite unlike anything he has ever done before.  The brilliant satire of his 2005 debut Thank You for Smoking made way for his pitch perfect dramedy Juno in 2007, which was directed from an Oscar-winning screenplay by Diablo Cody and is on my personal list of favourites.  His 2009 masterpiece Up in the Air was among the most definitive films of the last decade, and the director switched gears yet again for his second collaboration with Diablo Cody in 2011, delivering the underrated gem Young Adult.

Now comes Labor Day, an old fashioned romance built around soft spoken characters and the dappled sunlight of the final days of summer, a movie where two quietly complicated people fall deeply in love for reasons that might only make sense to each other.  What drew Jason Reitman to direct Labor Day is the same thing that compelled me to watch the film, and that is the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard from which the screenplay is closely adapted.  I read the novel a couple of summers ago, and found myself deeply invested in the lives of the characters, staying up much of the night just to finish the book.

As a quiet sense of suspense builds throughout, backed up by a masterful score from Rolfe Kent, Labor Day is a low key drama that affectively brings us into the world of these characters, leading up to a bittersweet ending that earns the emotional response of the audience.  This is a beautifully filmed and well acted adaptation of the moving novel by Joyce Maynard, and another strong addition to Jason Reitman’s excellent filmography.

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